Why underestimating Obama is risky

Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer recently warned Republicans should “not underestimate President Barack Obama.” The conservative Krauthammer is no convert, and his piece was highly critical of the direction in which Obama is taking the country. He was critical of the restructuring of one-sixth of the US economy; he was dismissive of the near-trillion-dollar stimulus package; and he raised the spectre of major tax hikes to pay for all of it. All legitimate positions and classic conservative arguments. There was nothing new—except his warning.

Krauthammer readily acknowledges that Obama, like him or not, achieved an historic milestone in changing how healthcare will be delivered in the United States. He admits quite readily that it is already a transformational and significant presidency. He may not like it, and he may believe it to be detrimental to the country, but he recognizes that Obama has not been a reluctant leader over his first 18 months in office. When one hears the boisterous sounds from the ranks of the opposition, it is hard to imagine the objectors would be as vocal if the changes Obama enacted had been minor.

Jonathan Alter’s book on Obama’s first year in office, The Promise, (a recommended read by the author of The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope) reinforces with documented evidence the range of Obama’s political agenda. Alter shows an engaged and proactive president with a defined vision of how government can deal with the problems he inherited. He acknowledges it is quite possibly the most activist administration since the FDR years. For instance, we see Obama not paying heed to the careful advice of his closest advisers (Emanuel, Axelrod, Biden) to delay healthcare reform, or at least do it in small doses. You often get the impression Obama sees beyond the next election rather than being obsessed with tactical maneuvers. He is more introspective than communicative. According to Alter, the irony is that Obama the president has been a far less effective communicator than Obama the candidate.

Alter argues the major shortcomings of the administration have been primarily tactical. Too often, there have been “hard to explain” communications failures. The challenges with healthcare reform had a lot to do with how Obama and his people managed their allies in Congress, and how they may have overlearned the lessons from the failed Clinton health initiative of 1993. Similarly, his apparent failure to pass a climate change bill before the mid-terms likely had a lot to do with switching the discourse to immigration reform at a time when influential the Republican Senator Lindsay Graham was working with the administration on a compromise energy/climate change bill with Democrat John Kerry.

Still, as both Krauthammer and Alter show, Obama has pushed ahead with many of the most important aspects of his agenda: healthcare reform; financial regulation reform (the most significant since 1930s); the largest-ever stimulus package, which has transformed important industrial sectors of the U.S. economy; the gradual withdrawal from Iraq and the re-focus on the Afghan war; the START treaty on nuclear weapon limitations with Russia; the imposition of sanctions against Iran; vital education reform (the Race to the Top program was applauded even by conservatives like Bill Bennett); and the elimination of pay discrimination for women.

With the Gulf spill coming under control and BP pledging to pay the costs of the cleanup, Obama can get back into candidate mode very shortly. This is good news for the Democrats. I observed Obama’s campaign very closely in 2007-2008 and he is clearly one of the best campaigners ever. He handles adversity well, remains calm under fire, recalibrates fairly easily, can play hardball when needed, and has an innate capacity to rebound. Even many Republicans concede this, albeit reluctantly.

This may not be enough to offset the mid-term losses, which are expected to be important. It may not even inch his approval ratings upward in the short to medium term. And it certainly will not uproot the Tea Party protest movement come November. But it fits with the burgeoning narrative that some Republicans have discreetly advanced regarding their party’s dangerous lack of clear policy or governing alternatives. The GOP cannot yet answer the question, “What are we proposing and can we gain the people’s trust?” Recent divisions inside the Republican party also feed into this narrative. For conservatives, underestimating Obama and assuming he is a one term president may prove to be a very perilous course.

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